United Kingdom PROM 54 – Enescu, Bartók, Mahler: Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.8.2018. (CC)
Enescu – Suite No.1 in C, Op.9; Prélude à l’unison (1903)
Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106 (1936)
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G
It is always a joy to welcome the Budapest Festival Orchestra to London, an ensemble which retains its top-notch status. The orchestra was founded by Fischer in 1983 and he has remained at the helm ever since. Hewn from old-world standards, their music making exuded charm and charisma. The programming, too, was stimulating, with an Enescu rarity up first: the first movement of the First Suite. It lives up it its title (Prélude à l’unison) with only a timpani roll, placed at the Golden Section point, to enhance the string line. The performance was beautifully disciplined, the decorations of melody incredibly together. Arpeggiations implied harmonies, and there were a couple of spread chords. There was no missing that stability-enhancing, grounding timpani entrance, either. One only missed the rest of the Suite.
We were back on far more familiar turf for the Bartók. It was the perfect follow-on, with the first movement boasting real pianissimi and beautifully uniform dynamics. The movement was superbly shaped, the tension beautifully maintained, and clarity was everywhere, even from the back of the hall. Contrast came with the violins ripping into the second movement Allegro; a great sense of play ensued. Fischer was clearly out to highlight the contrasts between the movements, with the Adagio frankly disturbing in demeanour (superb percussion). Washes of sound and a perfectly graded diminuendo led to a markedly brisk finale – those contrasts again – and its markedly folksy gait. With lush lower strings and absolute equivalence between first and second violins, this was a memorable account. Fischer and his players’ assurance in Bartók is legendary (see his Royal Festival Hall concert in May 2017 of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with the Sz 100 Peasant Songs and traditional Hungarian performance, for example: review); this was a joy to experience.
Last year, it was (the now recently dismissed) Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra who brought a Mahler Fourth (review). Here, Fischer gave a performance of much insight. Homogeneity of string sound was helped by placing the eight double-basses across the back of the orchestra, with the harp bisecting them into two groups of four. Antiphonal violins, expected perhaps, delivered splendid clarity of line. Detail was remarkable throughout (the clarinets behind the lush cello theme, for example). The first movement was intelligently structured by Fischer. Just one caveat was the under-projection of the leader, Tomás Major, an issue which blunted the acid of the second movement. There was a Fischer-Mahler ‘hack’ to this second movement, too: the first horn, Zoltán Szöke, was placed at the front of the orchestra next to the leader – better to co-ordinate the music’s strands, one might assume, a gesture that certainly underlined the horn/violin duetting. Fischer’s attention to detail, never descending to point-making, was clear in the harp flecks. In a symphony defined by its lyricism, Szöke’s deliberately raucous demeanour at one point seemed even more shocking.
It was good to have a slow movement that moved yet retained its interior expression. Here the string control was at its most masterly, the second violins so eloquent in their contributions. A perfectly judged octave entry for horns reiterated the care here, while Clément Noël’s rich-toned oboe gave much pleasure. Perhaps the climax was a touch underwhelming, but one must remember this was a performance that emphasised subtlety.
The soprano, Anna Lucia Richter, entered silently towards the end of the slow movement. Richter is a superb singer who shone in Fischer and the Budapest FO’s recent recording of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Channel Classics, excelling too in the three appended songs by Fanny Mendelssohn (review). Her contribution to this Fourth was managed perfectly, her beautiful voice as pure as Mahler surely intended. After a curiously matter-of-fact clarinet opening to this movement, characterisation became marked; the resonance between soprano and conductor, too, was remarkable, the pick-up at the second verse (‘Wir führen ein englisches Leben’) impeccable. Fischer added hints of a dance (a dream of a Ländler?) before the magic of ‘Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden’.
Mahler’s magic spun, an encore was inevitable, and so it was to be: part of the ‘Laudate dominum’ from Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339, allowing Richter another brief chance to spin a silver thread as well as giving the orchestra a chance to exercise their lungs. An unexpected twist, and a delightful one.